Potential Legislation May Restrict Freedom of California Professors · 18 October 2005

By Sarah Martin--Daily Bruin--10/12/05

The debates about school funding and academic freedom have University of California teachers and lecturers waiting for an opinion from the recently shifting U.S. Supreme Court, according to the California Teachers Association.

Professors' freedom in the classroom have been protected based on past Court rulings, but some are concerned new legislation could put that in jeopardy.

In 1987, the US Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment's establishment clause protected faculty members' academic freedom. Faculty cannot be fired or have their tenure revoked over what they cover in class.

"Individual instructors are at liberty to teach that which they deem to be appropriate in the exercise of their professional judgement," according to Supreme Court case Aguillard v. Edwards.

The ruling has meant that UCLA faculty, and other teachers in higher education, have had control over topics covered in their classes.

John Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties and human rights organization, said protection for teachers is important to maintaining the educational integrity of universities.

"It is the collective freedom of the faculty members to teach free from pressure, penalties or other threats by authorities or other persons inside or outside their institutions of learning," he wrote in a 2004 article, "Academic Freedom and The Rights of Religious Faculty."

However, laws are being proposed in the legislatures of other states that could reach the Supreme Court and affect UC professors and lecturers.

Faculty protection for comments made in the classroom could be in jeopardy if David Horowitz's Academic Bill of Rights is approved through state legislatures, said Mitchell Chang, a professor at the graduate school of education and information studies.

"If passed, the students would have the ability to sue their professors personally if a balanced perspective was not offered in class," Chang said. "Teachers unions would definitely pursue the issue in court - it would weaken the protection insured by tenure."

Proposition 75, which Californians will vote on in the Nov. 8 special election, would restrict public employee union dues from being used for political contributions, also has many teachers unions worried.

"California tends to be a more liberal state, but if the union dues proposition passes, I am sure that one will be challenged," said Frank Wells, communication consultant for the CTA.

Read SAF response.